In Defense of “New Girl” and Its Golden Globe Nomination or My Last Post on “New Girl”, I promise

New Girl is arguably the break out comedy hit of the Fall season. It might not have the strongest ratings, but it has the most buzz. It’s a show that polarizes its audience; you either love it or you hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Those who consider New Girl an all shtick-no-substance show will probably write its recent Golden Globe nomination for “Best Comedy” off as a bad pick, but I think there’s more to New Girl than hollow hijinks and made up terms like “adorkable” and “gumbo pod”.

Undeniably, much of New Girl’s hype is predicated on Deschanel. She is the draw and the deterrent for a large part of the show’s audience. Assumedly, those that are turned off by Deschanel never tuned in, but New Girl’s audience can’t be made up entirely of Deschanel devotees. In fact, a lot of Zooey D. fans gave New Girl a chance, but found it wasn’t for them. Just peruse the comment sections of New Girl recaps and you’ll see lots of “I gave it a shot for Zooey, but I can’t stand this show”. It’s clear that Deschanel isn’t the only thing dividing audiences. The other culprit? It’s Jess!

Let’s be honest, New Girl’s protagonist Jess Day isn’t much of a character, strictly speaking. She’s more of a caricature full of smiles, giggles, and eccentricities. A recent essay published in The New Inquiry readily points this out. Handelman writes, “Jess Day’s one-sided personality relies on an assortment of quirks…” and goes on to argue that Jess’ lack of personal history and desires make her a “stunted character” that relies solely on her idiosyncrasies to entrance and entertain. To Handelman, Jess is more akin to a logo, like the Morton Salt girl, than a real character. Where did Jess come from? Where is she going? What does she want out life (other than to have geeky non-weird sex or thaw a turkey with her body heat)? We, the viewers, don’t know. But the bigger question is: do we need to know?

One answer is no, we don’t. New Girl is a sitcom and therefore requires less character development than a drama. Sure, there are lots of sitcom characters that do have life goals (Leslie Knope wants to be mayor, Lucy Ricardo wants to be a star), but there are also many that exist unentangled by aspirations (Cosmo Kramer, Tracy Jordan) who maintain themselves through their zany antics. For Handelman, “weird for weird’s sake isn’t compelling…It’s embarrassing”, but for modern audiences weird for weird’s sake is a staple of sitcom fare. Inexplicably weird characters like Jess have become part of sitcoms’ narrative language and viewers know how to interpret and enjoy them.

The more interesting answer, however, is that Jess’ lack of personal context is intentional. Each of the three guys Jess lives with have more of a backstory than her, so why the imbalance? Jess is purposefully atemporal; she is a sitcom experiment in minimalism. How bare can we paint this character and still hold our audience? Let’s even make our theme song a cheeky reference to it:

Hey girl, whatcha doin?/Hey girl, where you going?/Who’s that girl?/ It’s Jess!

There are other examples of New Girl’s subtle meta-humor that suggest Jess’ character may be more than just inconsistent writing. In the episode “Bells”, a good-natured spoof of Glee, Jess is a rather inept, but unconditionally accepting, teacher trying to help disillusioned kids by introducing them to music. “Kryptonite”, the only episode so far that features people or events from Jess’ past, introduces her ex-boyfriend Spencer, the center of her ethos, and recalls Deschanel’s indie film 500 Days of Summer.

Maybe I’m giving New Girl too much credit. Maybe its Golden Globe nod is based solely on its shiny, bubbly surface. If so, then I have some parting advice for New Girl: Hey there, tiger. You have the foundation and opportunity to be funny AND smart. Don’t give in and deliver Jess’ backstory episode. Embrace her wonderful inexplicability, add a dash more self-awareness, and let her play confidently and intelligently with her role as the forever new girl.

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New Thoughts on “New Girl”

I know you’re probably thinking that New Girl is such a simple show that it doesn’t really require any thought let alone two posts! But there’s something about this show that continuously makes me question why I like it, and I think that’s a good thing because it suggests that it’s doing something different. I watch Community and Parks and Rec and it’s clear to me why I enjoy them – smart writing and  sharp, well developed characters, amongst other things – but New Girl doesn’t really have those qualities, at least not consistently. So what gives? Why do so many people love New Girl?

In my previous post, I argue that it’s because they love Zooey Deschanel. I don’t think that’s wrong. Certainly, the show initially garnered more Zooey fans than not, but now that the show is eight episodes in, it’s likely only those that actually enjoy the show are still tuning in. It has to be more than just Deschanel devotees. Since my last post, I’ve been musing on the idea that Jess is a context-less character – we have no idea why she is who she is – and that this breaks all the rules of good character development. To get an audience to identify with a character said character must have identifiable hopes and dreams and a backstory. Jess has none of these, other than maybe a very short term goal of thawing a turkey or having sex. Yet, people still love her.

Then, I cam across this article: “Who’s That Girl?”. Good article, but I don’t agree with it. In response to this article, here are my newest thoughts on New Girl:

I think Jess’ lack of a background is interesting, and while her character cannot logically be unique since she is devoid of context, I think the success of the show in spite of/because of this is worth commenting on. I agree that New Girl’s popularity is largely predicated on Zooey D. being the star, but I know many people who had never seen her in anything before this (myself included) and love the show.

Now that the show is eight episodes in, I doubt that many have stuck around just for Deschanel, which suggests there is something inherent in her “adorkablness” that speaks to viewers. In fact, I like that her character has no background to explain why she is who she is. It violates the main rules of character development, yet people still love her. Weirdness for weirdness sake and character erosion to the point of caricature jives with today’s audiences who have grown used to shows whose content is narratively shallow – meta conversations about other pop culture topics or self-reflexive references – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jess’ lack of uniqueness is the most unique thing about the show, although I don’t think they really realize it. They should capitalize on it, besides the references in the theme song.

I too am hoping for a different Jess, but not necessarily one with more ambition or more desire, but rather one that plays confidently and intelligently with her role as a “logo girl”.

Is ‘New Girl’ A New Kind Of TV Show?

In the 90’s, Seinfeld, the show famously about nothing, reigned the airwaves. It was ground breaking for both sitcoms and sitcom viewers. It was self-aware and unafraid. Viewers grew accustomed to, and eventually embraced, the show’s particular narrative language where plots were forgotten from week to week as if they had never happened. This world of no consequences was relatively new to TV audiences at the time, but has now become the norm for many shows (Arrested DevelopmentFamily Guy, etc.).

And, at first, I thought New Girl might be something like that. A show that dabbled in the absurd and didn’t dally in seriality. But quickly, I realized it wasn’t. Each episode doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the characters remember what came before, if evidenced only in the way that they relate to each other (the tension between Nick and Jess grows each episode). No, New Girl is no Seinfeld in structure or quality. But it could be something entirely new.

New Girl’s success is based solely on Zooey Deschanel and her “adorkable” celebrite. Sure, the dudes are a funny group of guys – I’ve become quite fond of Schmidt – but Deschanel is the reason the show is still around. Over the past few years we’ve seen the rise of the auteur-showrunner (like New Girl’s Liz Meriwether), but does New Girl represent the advent of the auteur-actor; an actor who, based on their presence and personality alone, brings viewers back week after week?

Strengthening the notion that viewers are only tuning in for Zooey D’s zany antics is the show’s content, or lack thereof. Each episode has the barest of plots, and so far, it always follows the same structure: Jess has a cooky idea or does something embarrassing and the guys hate her for it, but by the end of the episode they come around and end up admiring Jess’ unswerving dedication to quirkiness and being herself. There’s not a lot to love here, except Zooey.

But not everyone loves New Girl, and the most cited reason why (in my experience) is very telling. It’s not that they don’t like Jess, it’s that they don’t like Deschanel. In fact, it’s impossible to separate Deschanel from her character Jess. Jess is who we assume Deschanel is; we assume that she is just as “adorkable” in real life (side note: the real Jess incarnate is, in fact, Meriwether).

So supposing New Girl is a new kind of show, then it requires a new kind of viewer. Many TV spectators today are quite savvy and relish complex or non-traditional narrative structure (like in the X-Files or Lost ), but New Girl promises neither. It creates a new pact with an audience: show up each week and enjoy Deschanel’s one-liners and wide-eyed expressions and expect little else. And judging by the ratings, audiences have signed on.

But it isn’t there yet. New Girl is so, well, new that it still has a choice to make: continue down this path of the auteur-actor into increasingly zany and absurd moments and perhaps forge a new kind of sitcom, or turn to the safe zone with traditional plot-driven episodes evenly distributed over the ensemble cast. Neither is inherently better than the other, except maybe with regards to longevity (shows on the fringe, like the in-limboCommunity, don’t last long).

So New Girl: What you doing? Hey girl, where you going?

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